© emijrp / Wikipedia
Spain is planning to sell warships to Saudi Arabia despite opposition from major human rights groups, which call the potential sale illegal, as Riyadh may use them in their operation against Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.

A spokesman for Navantia, a Spanish state-owned shipbuilding company, said that five Avante 2200 corvettes, which are small warships used primarily for offshore patrolling, could be sold for an estimated €2 billion ($2.1 billion), AFP reported on Thursday.

"We can only confirm that negotiations are very advanced to build five warships which would be sold to the Saudi navy," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Spain's King Felipe VI will start a three-day official visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday.

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, FundiPau, Oxfam Intermón, and Greenpeace, consider the potential sale illegal.

These groups released a statement on Thursday saying that "Spain could become complicit in atrocities in the conflict in Yemen" as its warships "can be used to carry out direct military attacks against [Yemeni] civilians."

The groups cited UN data which showed that more than 7,000 people, half of whom were civilians, had died in the Yemeni conflict by the end of 2016, and more than 38,000 people had been wounded.

"Any possible arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen are illegal because it violates Spanish law and international arms trade," Esteban Beltrán, a director of Amnesty International (AI) in Spain, said.

"The question is: is the contract [between Spain and Saudi Arabia] legal or illegal. And it is clearly illegal," Alberto Estevez, an expert on arms sales at the Spanish branch of Amnesty International, told AFP.

In its 2016 report, AI named Spain, along with France, Germany, the UK and the US, as one of the countries "arming and aiding a campaign that's bombing, killing and starving civilians" in Yemen.

Mario Rodriguez, director of Greenpeace Spain, also called for an investigation into whether "the ammunition, mortar grenades, bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, aircraft and armored vehicles" which Spain exported to Saudi Arabia "have been used to kill innocent civilians in Yemen."

Thursday's letter is not the first complaint from the NGOs about the sale of Spanish warships to Saudi Arabia. In January of 2016, they wrote to Navantia, the shipbuilder, and Spain's prime minister to express their opposition.

In May of 2016, these four human rights groups released a joint report entitled 'Licenses to kill?' that said "nearly a third of Spanish arms exports in the first semester of 2015 was destined to the countries of the Saudi-led coalition operating in the war in Yemen since March 2015."

Spain has been the seventh largest arms exporter in the world in recent years, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

SIPRI data from 2015 indicates that Saudi Arabia, which became the world's second largest arms importer in 2014-2015, "received 4 tanker aircraft from Spain."

A United Nations global arms trade treaty ratified in December of 2014 bans the sale of weapons that could be used in attacks against civilians.

Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen with an air campaign in March of 2015 in order to stop the advance of Shia Houthi rebels and reinstate ousted Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. Riyadh is backed by a coalition of nine Arab countries, which has been armed by the UK and US, while the Houthis are supposedly aided by Iran.

Human Rights Watch revealed in October of 2016 that the coalition - with direct military support from the US and assistance from the UK - has conducted at least 58 "unlawful airstrikes" since March of 2015, with other human rights organizations and the UN documenting dozens more. However, the Saudi-led coalition has maintained that it does not target civilians.